Literature on the Web: “a good book is the precious life-blood of a master spirit…”

In a TLS review, Jonathan Bate suggests that Milton has been a mirror which each era’s biographers have used to reflect their professional self-image. “For Masson,” he writes “it was sufficient to be clubbable around the Athenaeum. For William Empson in the following century, the professor of literature could be the naughty schoolboy throwing paper darts from the back row of the classroom (the Christian-baiting of Milton’s God).” In reviewing Gordon Campbell and Thomas N. Corns’ new biography, then, Bate notes that we see, in turn, “a Milton who would have been at home in the corridors of New Labour power or in the managerialized modern university. He is a nimble committee man, like some wily pro-vice-chancellor who proudly wears his radical credentials yet is prepared to write position papers to order and to modify his stance in response to subtle changes in the ideological direction of his leader.” Bate doesn’t much care for this approach, it seems, judging “an authoritative Life of Milton in which the pamphlet “Animadversions upon the Remonstrants Defence against Smectymnuus” is given three times as much space as Lycidas” to be only “symptomatic of an age in which professors in English departments have been ‘making literature history.'” I have to admit, though, I don’t mind seeing the pendulum swing this way a bit. It’s not like anyone is going to stop reading “Lycidas” (or that long epic he wrote), and there are just too many gems buried in Milton’s non-fiction prose to bemoan the fact that a little light is getting cast on the stuff he spent most of his life actually writing.

John Banville may think that civilization invented the sentence, but the death of writing does not – Adam Kirsch tells us – necessarily mean the end of writing: “Human beings wrote long before there were newspapers or books or even paper, and they will continue to do so when these have been replaced by pixels and bytes.” In his Slate review of several new biographies of Samuel Johnson, Kirsch suggests that the age of the professional writer may be coming to an end, an ironic three centuries after “the greatest professional writer in English literature” declared that “No man but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money.” Kirsch has a very low opinion of “a future when writing is something done casually, in brief blog bursts in one’s spare time” and wonders whether “the kind of professional confidence and expertise that Johnson cultivated over a lifetime of paid work will appear as regrettably obsolete as books and newspapers themselves.”

In that vein, it probably says something that Motoko Rich’s NYT article doesn’t focus on the literary merits of Jonathan Littell’s 983-page novel The Kindly Ones – which are presumably great enough to justify “Publisher’s Big Gamble on Divisive French Novel” – but rather on how amazing it is that an American publisher would take a risk on publishing a novel not only translated from French but also saddled with the handicap of having won France’s most prestigious literary prize. Quel surprise!

In the same issue as it published fragments of the late David Foster Wallace’s unfinished novels (and D.T.Max’s tremendously sad account of Wallace’s “Unifinished“), the New Yorker also had a review of Blake Bailey’s new biography of John Cheever, and I couldn’t help paying more attention to the by-line (the late John Updike) than to the substance of the review. I did, however, enjoy Bailey’s estimation that he was one of possibly ten persons to have read through the the “forty-three hundred pages, mostly typed single-space,” of Cheever’s private journals, what he calls “a monument of tragicomic solipsism.” But as the good people who are blogging Henry David Thoreau’s journals (here and here), a sort of “this day in Thoreau’s journal,” there’s nothing wrong with a bit of good old fashioned solipsism every now and again.